What a scrap this weekend was in the Gallagher Premiership with three of the league’s bottom sides landing a killer blow against teams above them. That keeps the league looking as tight as ever with a tiny 2 points separating fifth to ninth and Newcastle Falcons now breathing heavily onto the back of the neck of the Worcester Warriors.
Gloucester fans will have had their heads in their hands after the Cherry & Whites failed to put away a lively and frenetic Bristol side and cement their place at the top table. After the highs of the last two weeks it has a horribly familiar feel this loss for many of the Kingsholm faithful. Glos fans should not be too downhearted however as there would have been a huge amount of emotional and physical energy put into playing Exeter and Saracens. It is so incredibly hard to maintain that level week in week out and to me it was not a surprise to see those energy levels dip and mistakes creep into their game. With an early loss of influential scrummy Heinz plus two yellow cards it was an uphill battle which they only narrowly failed to win.
The Bears are just a one off. The way coach Pat Lam has them playing the game is unlike every other team in the Prem. I like the way Pat sticks to his guns and despite the desperate need to get points his team still insist on madcap attempts to break out of their own half by throwing the ball around. It so nearly kills them but then it comes off too and they have some superstar talent of the likes of Charles Piatau who adds touches of class and magic.
Another team lurking uncomfortably near the relegation zone scrapped home with a crucial 4 points. The Tigers have had a season to forget and are in unfamiliar territory for them. Shorn of their England players and with Matt Toomua not available the team sheet looked a touch weaker than the Wasps one.
The game itself was a story of crucial TMO decisions and Tigers defence. The home lads scrapped for everything but were still undone by some blistering pace from Marcus Watson and it looked grim for the fans packed into Welford Road. Wasps still could and should have won especially with a final push over try being denied based on no video evidence of the grounding. Looking at the Wasps players’ celebration and the lack of reaction from Tigers it is probable that it was a try but the man with the whistle couldn’t give it. JP Doyle had asked ‘Try – yes or no?’ rather than ‘Any reason why I cannot award the try’ Small moments like this so often define a game but I also felt Wasps were snatching a bit and forcing things especially after some decisions did not go their way. A really tough loss to take but there were moments under their own control where handling and decision making were the culprits and a few more passes to hand would have sealed a win.
As for the Tigers all credit to them for an unbelievable show of passion and attitude. To lose one scrum half may be regarded as misfortune – to lose two could be regarded as fatal. Somehow. someway Tigers survived even with a drastic reshuffling of their backs with winger Jonah Holmes giving a surprisingly fine imitation of a scrum half whilst a flanker had to plant himself on the wing. The one guy that really impressed me in the Tigers team stepped out of the shadow of his brother to play a pivotal role. Take a bow Joe Ford. It was a beautifully controlled performance from him with some super, deft passing and lovely kicking. Tigers fans may be rather glad now they have another Ford at 10 they can trust.
Meanwhile over in North London the Northampton Saints took their regular beating from Saracens but with the consolation of a superb second half fight back. Handicapped by a last-minute change of fly half and lots of reshuffling of the back line they came back strongly with a second half to build on. The game also showcased the rising star of Lewis Ludlam – a back rower who must surely start to come to Eddie Jones’ attention.
The Fez boys’ rivals Exeter meantime delivered a solid and ‘Exeter’ like performance up at Sale – a tough place to go up to and a journey from Devon that must include a serious amount of motorway service visits. For Sale it was an opportunity to put a chink of daylight between them and the other six teams also chasing top 6. Unfortunately, a dodgy first half which saw Sale 15 points down was always going to be tough to overcome. They came close with Byron McGuigan’s try a stand out, but Ex had done enough and were disciplined as usual to hold out and earn themselves a jolly return journey down the M6.
Harlequins are having a rather superb season under Paul Gustard and ruined the afternoon for Bath fans with a last minute try to gain a well-deserved away victory. Sitting very securely in third place Quins seem to be very much back as a top side and thoroughly merit their top 4 place. You do feel for Bath however who for the second week running let a win slip through their buttery fingers.
Newcastle Falcons’ ground was packed for the so styled ‘Bottom of The Table Clash’ and in the end the home side’s sheer desire and desperation got them over the line. The forgotten man Toby Flood was sensational showing such passion that he not only controlled the game beautifully at 10 he was also flying into rucks, tackling and even made a sensational turnover. It was the sort of relegation battle that is used to justify promotion and relegation in the league and it certainly was mesmerising. Just sad to think that something which is entertainment for us is a fight for jobs and the survival of rugby for the two clubs involved. I for one would be incredibly sad to see the North lose one of its only two clubs especially as the Falcons have been building steadily with increasing crowds and a strong academy. This season there is no obvious team that looks out of place at this level which means it is heartbreak for possibly Worcester, Bristol or Newcastle.
The best rugby tournament in the world returns this weekend with crucial games for Wales and Ireland in Round 4 of the Six Nations. Wales will be facing the bagpipes, smoke and flares of Murrayfield where Scottish passion so often overcomes the visitors. Scotland’s injury list does not look much improved and Wales will be on a roll so the Grand Slam should come one step closer. Ireland will be able to re-gather and start again in the comforts of the Aviva although they could have wished to play France before Les Bleus started to look half decent again! Wales, Ireland and England should all win however all bets are off because as this Six Nations has demonstrated – this year the favourite tag means nothing